Brussels sprouts at Christmas: a crisis update

What’s the latest crisis in Britain? A super-pest, the diamondback moth, attacked this year’s British brussels sprout crop and supermarkets are struggling to keep their shelves stocked with this all-important Christmas vegetable.

What will become of us all, my friends?

And this isn’t only a Christmas issue. It seems people have taken to using brussels sprouts out of season by adding them to smoothies and salads and stir fries. Next year, we’ll start seeing them in cakes and cookies. And as a nice green layer in a trifle. They’ll taste terrible, but won’t they be pretty? And hey, they’re good for you. Mmmm. Eat your dessert, kids, and you can have some main dish.

If you’re not British enough to know what a trifle is, it involves whipped cream and custard and fruit and something cakey and something else alcoholish. Unless all the ingredients except the whipped cream have been replaced with other things, such as jelly, which is Jello, instead of the custard and orange juice instead of the alcohol and brussels sprouts instead of fruit. Once you start all that, you might as well replace the whipped cream with shaving cream. I mean, why not? It’s cheaper. I think. I haven’t done a price comparison. Anyway, in its natural state, trifle is sublime. When you start swapping ingredients, you start to lose sublimity. Or is that sublimosity?

I confess, I actually like brussels sprouts. But that’s not the point, is it? (she said, following the British tradition of making a question out of a statement by asking listeners who know less about the topic if it’s accurate.) Liking brussels sprouts doesn’t mean I’d like them as a smoothie ingredient anymore than it means I’d want to make them into a tee shirt.

For several years running, I took part in a parade that included a small group of people dressed entirely in kale. And, I’d guess, a few hidden bits of string. Or glue. The year it was hot enough to wilt the kale, it was touch and go which would last longer, the kale or the parade.

Yes, I have had an interesting life.

If you can’t think why this shortage of brussels sprouts constitutes a crisis, I’ll have to refer you to an older post on the role of brussels sprouts in the traditional British Christmas meal. And since this is all so important, to another one of the same topic. Bizarrely enough, they’re among my most popular posts.

Whatever you celebrate or don’t celebrate, I wish you a good one. And I’ll stop adding short extra posts any day now. I know you have real lives calling to you. It’s just that this was too important to skip.

Easter eggs, crime sprees, and personal delivery

Last Saturday’s Western Morning News had a story about a “£300,000 rural crime spree” in which six men stole four-wheel-drives, tractors, trailers, boats, farm equipment, and–this reads like it wandered in from a different story but I swear it didn’t–chocolate Easter eggs. Thousands of pounds worth of chocolate Easter eggs. I’d give you a link but I can’t find the story online. I read it in the print edition. It was on–do you remember paper? It was on paper. So you’ll just have to trust me on this.

Or not. If you think I made it up, no harm done. I’ll get credit for a bizarre imagination.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. I'll stop with the cat and dog photos soon, but everything else I've shot lately is overexposed.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. J. with Moose. Or the other way around. I’ll stop with the cat and dog photos eventually, but everything else I’ve shot lately is overexposed. Besides, who can resist this one?

How much space does it take to store thousands of pounds worth of Easter eggs? Well, that depends on how much the Easter eggs cost, which (if you were buying instead of stealing them) is another way of saying it depends on your income, or at least outgo. It might take less space than you’d think. Hotel Chocolat sells one for £75, but at Fortnum and Mason, you can drop £90 for a chocolate Easter egg or £250 for a “chocolate beehive sculpture” (sorry–I can’t take that seriously enough to leave it outside of quotation marks; I don’t want the blame for that description). And for that amount, I’ll throw in more quotation marks: It’s made from “majestic” Valrhona chocolate. Whatever the hell Valrhona chocolate is, the price went up by £50 pounds when they glued that adjective to it.

I worked in a candy factory for long enough to lost my taste for the stuff, and although I wouldn’t say they used particularly good chocolate and I wouldn’t hold it up as setting the world standard for chocolates–well, what I’m trying to say is that I’ve never seen majestic chocolate.

Fortnum and Mason can’t send the beehive, by the way. Maybe at £250 you’re not paying enough for that or maybe it’s just too valuable to ship. Either way,you’ll have to pick it up at the store.

Or you can spend your £250 at Betty’s of Harrogate and get Betty’s “Imperial Easter Egg.” Betty delivers. “Personally.” That goes in quotes too. I assume that’s personally to you, not personally by Betty. In fact, I don’t even know that there is a Betty, or that there ever was. And while we’re talking about things I don’t know, I don’t know how much she charges to deliver, because you have to call to find out–the information isn’t online–but if you’re spending £250 for a chunk of decorated chocolate, why quibble about delivery costs?

Okay, let’s get back to that personal delivery. Have you ever had anything sent to you that wasn’t delivered personally? I’m guessing the personally, in this context, means by a person (as opposed to a drone) and to a person. Even if the package is left in the garage, or with a neighbor, it’s still to you, personally. Or, if they insist on it going directly into your anxious little paws, all it means is that you’re stuck waiting around for it.

Who writes this stuff? I once saw a real estate brochure for an apartment building that said it had an indoor elevator. That’s as opposed, presumably, to a trebuchet, which is a £250 word for the kind of catapult used in medieval sieges–an outdoor arrangement that delivers you memorably to granny’s fourth floor apartment if her place doesn’t have an indoor elevator. After you arrive splat in her living room, her place won’t have glass in the window either, blurring the line between indoor and outdoor.

I’ve wandered, haven’t I? We were talking about the Easter eggs.Betty’s is 5.4 kilos of chocolate, milk or dark, If you think in pounds rather than kilos, you can either multiply that by 2.2 or simply accept that it’s a shitload of chocolate. You can also multiply, divide, and go into shock over how much you’re spending per pound. Or ounce.

From Betty’s site I went to Cadbury’s, which asked how much I wanted to spend. The answer was, Oh, lots! and I clicked on the most expensive category, which was “over £50.” That’s me,the reckless spender, but the best they could do for me was offer hampers–enough stuff thrown together to take the price up to an even £50. Given where I’d just come from, I wasn’t impressed. So I checked out Lidl’s, the discount supermarket, where I could buy a bag of chocolate (I think) mini-eggs for £1.29, and they’ll ring them up at the cash register for me personally. After that, I can personally carry it out to my car, munching as I go. Except that I used to work in that candy factory and I’m immune to the lure of anything but good (although not majestic), very plain dark chocolate.

So–returning to the actual story I was telling, and you may have forgotten that there was one but I haven’t–it’s not clear how much storage space the stolen Easter eggs needed. Especially since the Westy didn’t say how many thousands of pounds of Easter eggs it was talking about. The Westy‘s like that. It tells you what it tells you, which is often that the neighbors were shocked and horrified, and leaves out what it leaves out, which can be a great deal. But it does spell neighbors with a U. Always.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I need to credit the members of my writers group, who pointed me in the direction of the Betty’s of Harrogate egg. They’re wonderful, and every bit as strange as I am.

If you celebrate Easter, have a good Easter. And if you don’t–well, neither do I. Whatever you believe, don’t steal any Easter eggs, okay? At the end of it all, you just eat them (it’s too late in the season to sell them) and eating a £250 egg–well, what does that leave you with?

Wishing you a happy but belated Pancake Day

Pancake Day came and went quietly this year. It’s a holiday I never heard of before I moved to the U.K. and it’s such a quiet one that I’d been here a couple of years before I even noticed it.

Pancake Day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent starts. Traditionally, anyone who kept Lent gave up everything fun, and that put a lot of pressure on that last pre-Lent day. So New Orleans went wild with Mardi Gras and still does. Brazil cut loose during Carnival and keeps right on doing it. And the British? They eat pancakes.

Does this country know how to throw a party or what?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything. Nice, isn't it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is from New Zealand and has nothing to do with anything here. Nice, isn’t it? Photo by Ida Swearingen

The logic of Pancake Day is inescapable. People were supposed to give up eggs, milk, and sugar during lent, so they used them up the night before by making pancakes. What were they supposed to do with the eggs the chickens went right on laying and the milk the cow kept on giving? Because cows and chickens don’t care if it’s Lent. They don’t believe in any religion, and even if they did biological processes are hard to control But what do I know? I’m Jewish and I’m an atheist, and if that isn’t enough I grew up in New York, where we didn’t keep a lot of cows or chickens. So I’m not an expert on this stuff. In fact, I thought all a person had to do during Lent was give up one thing, like orange bubble gum or blue frosting. But maybe that’s a toned-down modern approach.

Anyway, these days Britain’s long on tradition but light on traditional religion. So it substitutes eating pancakes for emptying the cupboards of all the good stuff and entering a somber season in a sugar-free, egg-free, lactose-free condition. And even I can get behind eating pancakes, although not on a fixed day every year, which accounts for me being late with this post.

So let’s talk about pancakes. They never go out of season.

British pancakes—at least the ones I’ve had—are more like French crepes, which is to say, thin. I first tasted them when a neighbor borrowed some flour because he had to make pancakes that night–it was Pancake Day–and in payment he brought us each a pancake, with lemon (I think) and (definitely) sugar. They were good. I can’t think of a bad thing to say about them. But sometimes a person just wants a thick ol’ American pancake. So be warned, I’m leading up to a recipe. Because no matter how good British pancakes are, I believe in the American version. What can I tell you? Talk to me about food and I’m capable of unreasoning patriotism.

I’ve seen British food writers offer approximations of American pancakes and they have some strange ideas about how we make them. One adds vanilla and honey but no baking soda or baking powder. Which is why she has to beat hell out of the egg whites. Another beats hell out of the whole mix until it’s thoroughly blended and lumpless, which is a good idea if you’re making a cake but not so great if you want pancakes, because they need a lumpy batter.

Why the food writers don’t just look in an American cookbook I don’t know, but here’s my recipe.

Pancakes

Serves 2 moderate eaters; for enthusiastic eaters, double the recipe and eat the leftovers cold and straight from the refrigerator

1 cup (4 oz.) flour

1 tsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. bicarbonate of soda

1 egg

½ cup (or more) buttermilk (or plain milk with about 1 tsp. of cider or white vinegar added*)

1 Tbsp. (½ oz.) melted butter

Optional: blueberries, peaches, or raspberries

Put the dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk them together. That’s instead of sifting. I’m a lazy cook and this works. Beat the egg into the milk and add it to the dry ingredients. Add the butter. Stir until just barely mixed, leaving some lumps. Add more milk if you need to until you get a thick but pourable batter. The thinner the batter, the thinner the pancakes will be.

Stir the fruit in last.

Heat the frying pan (or several pans, which will let you cook them faster) over a medium-high heat until a drop of water bounces (in theory; I usually settle for it sizzling madly). Add a bit of oil or butter and spread it with a spatula. If you’re using a non-stick pan, you don’t need much; if you’re not, you’ll need more and will have to add more before each new pancake. Pour in a ladleful of batter. I generally make my pancakes a bit bigger than CD-size. but you can make smaller ones if you like. Hell, you can shape them into the letters of the alphabet if you want, but they’ll be hard to flip. Don’t put a cover on the the pan. Bubbles will rise and then break, signaling that the bottom’s probably done. Sneak a look and if it’s brown, flip the pancake. Leave the second side on the pan long enough for the center to cook through.

You may need to adjust the heat as you go. If the pancakes burn, turn it down. If they don’t brown, turn it up. You’d probably have figured that out without me saying it.

You can feed them to the ravening hordes as they get done of keep them warm in a very low oven until they’re all cooked and you can sit down yourself.

Serve with butter and maple syrup. Or if you’re in a Lenten kind of mood, with plain old yogurt, which is surprisingly good with them.

 

*The milk will curdle when you mix in the vinegar. That’s fine.

British Christmas traditions: the brussels sprout

What is it about the British and brussels sprouts at Christmas? I address this topic because judging from my search engine queries it’s what people want to know. Or at least what one very determined person wants to know. Within a few days, I had at least five variations on the question Why do the British eat brussels sprouts at Christmas? It may have been more. I lost track in there somewhere. Why the person kept coming back if I hadn’t already managed to answer the question I don’t know. Determination shading into obsession?

Anyway, the question matters, and I’ve addressed it before but I don’t feel I did it justice. Because I sidestepped several crucial facts.

Irrelevant photo: gorse (that's the yellow stuff) and heather (that's the purple)

Irrelevant photo: Gorse (that’s the yellow stuff) and heather (that’s the purple). And grass (that’s the green and the tan.)

First, if Google is to be trusted (it’s not) you can spell the vegetable with or without an S: brussel sprouts or brussels sprouts. The first spelling matches our pronunciation (we just can’t make the double S audible unless we say it while standing on our heads and gargling salt water). Besides which, it’s easier to type without the extra S. The second spelling replicates the name of the city where they didn’t originate. According to Brussels Sprouts Info (everything important has its own web site these days), they’re believed to have been grown in Italy as far back as Roman times and began to be grown on a large scale in Belgium as far back as the sixteenth century before spreading outward from there.

The more common spelling seems to keep the extra S.

Second, you can either capitalize the B or not, depending on whether you capitalize the F in french fries. I don’t, but Word does and gives me bad marks every time I go back and un-cap it. It’s easier to use a cap, which is probably why I don’t. It’s a small and pointless way to fight the monopolies that are taking over our spelling. Not to mention our lives, economy, and politics. Take that, monopolies: I’m using a lower case F and a lower case B. That sound you hear? It’s Microsoft crumbling in the face of my defiance.

Third, the world contains more than 110 varieties of brussels sprouts and I bet you can’t tell any one of them from the other more than 109.

You notice how vague they are on the actual number? It’s probably because someone’s out there devising a new variety even as I type.

So far so uncontroversial, but now we come to:

Fourth, the real reason they’re eaten in Britain at Christmas is a tightly held secret and I’m going to reveal it to you and only you because, hey, it’s just us here, right? No one else is listening. I’d get into serious trouble otherwise. So here’s the truth: The Church of England may be the official and established church in this country, but it’s a thin and brittle overlay. Underneath lies the country’s deeper religion, worship of the Great Brussels Sprout. (And here, yes, it’s capitalized. Even by me. It’s a god and all. You want to show a little respect.)

What did the Druids worship? The Great Brussels Sprout. They painted themselves blue and cultivated the sacred plant. And they were nekkid when they did it.

How’d they cultivate it if brussels sprouts didn’t yet grow in the British Isles? I did say Google couldn’t be trusted. Its sources are giving you the official history. You can only find the truth by going into the dark web, where danger lurks behind every pixel, so I don’t dare give you any links. Folks, I’ll take the risk myself but I can’t be responsible for your safety. You’ll have to find it on your own or trust my report: The truth is that the Romans quietly exported the brussels sprout from Britain to Italy, and once it was established there they claimed to have developed all more than 110 varieties themselves.

Back in Britain, the Romans suppressed both the Druids and all outward forms of sprout cultivation and worship, but the belief ran deep in the population, and it survived, waiting from the sprout’s return.

How’d it do that when the pre-Roman British tribes (the Iceni, the Caledones, the Parisi, the Cornovii…) were overrun by the Angles and the Saxons and the Vikings and the Normans, making for a choppy history and a messy but interesting language? Because knowledge of the Great Brussels Sprout is planted deep in the soil. You don’t have to learn it from your community. If you get yourself a shovel and start digging, it works its way into your bloodstream. You feel a compulsion to worship something green and brassican. Rumor has it that they made do with cabbages until the brussels sprout was re-imported and jogged their memories of what the Great God really looked like. These were agricultural people, remember. They had lots of shovels. So when Christianity became the dominant religion, the best it could do was drive sprout worship deep underground, and from there it rises, godlike, every year.

Do I consider it strange, you ask (or at least you should ask), that people eat the sprout they worship? Isn’t that a bit, um, grotesque? Not at all. The Great Sprout is the essence of all sprouts and is itself inedible. The sprouts people eat at Christmas are merely its representation. And those among us who claim the ones on the plate are also inedible? They’re closest to the holy nature of the Great Brussels Sprout and everybody should back off and stop giving them a hard time.

Fifth (we were counting, remember?), the brussels sprout ripens around Christmas time. How many other vegetables are willing to do that? So of course people eat it.

*

And on a marginally sensible note, last week I forgot to link back to Laura, at A PIct in PA, who first used to word tickety boo, giving me a great excuse for another important post. She’s a Scot living and raising her kids in Pennsylvania, and she keeps a fine blog with lots of nifty artwork.

Prohibition and sticky toffee desserts

When I last asked for questions about Britain or the U.S., Dan Antion wrote, “The last night I was in London, I had some kind of gooey toffee desert (sticky something). I wrote my friend in Ipswich and said, ‘why did you send us the Beatles and keep this a secret?’ but he never replied. This makes me think there’s a law against describing that dish. If you choose not to write about this or toffee, I’ll understand (but it will confirm my suspicion).”

Never one to be scared off by sensible considerations or petty legalities, I’ll tell you everything I know on the subject. And more. Much, much more.

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

Irrelevant photo: a volunteer cyclamen that planted itself by the back door

It sounds to me like Dan stumbled into an underground club where sticky toffee pudding was being served on the sly. While he was on the pavement humming “Yellow Submarine” and wondering why colors seemed so vivid suddenly, his friend was whispering a secret word to the tough guy lingering by an unmarked door, who gestured them inside and closed the door behind them. They ate and Dan licked his spoon (desserts here come with a big honkin’ spoon) and wondered why the tastes were as vivid as the colors.

It was something to do with the Beatles.

I can’t promise to reproduce that experience, but through the magic of the internet I have gotten access to several highly encrypted recipes. Being so well hidden, there are, of course, problems.

  1. They’re mostly metric, but if you can decode them, you can make then. And if you can make them, you can eat them. I won’t try to convert them because I tried that once and–well, it was over a year ago and I’m still recovering. So you’ll need a kitchen scale to follow them. Sorry, you American cooks. This involves a smallish investment.
  2. Sticky toffee pudding seems to want self-raising flour, and I never used the stuff in the U.S. It’s sold in the southern states but is rare in the northern states and in Canada—or so the wise old internet informs me. It doesn’t like the cold, I guess, but with global warming its range may be expanding. Even where it’s available, though, it’s apparently formulated differently, so using it could make your recipe go all weird.
  3. British supermarkets sell more kinds of sugar than kinds of baked beans, and they lots of baked beans. Lots and lots of baked beans. Start with granulated, demerara, turbinado, muscovado, then go on for another line or two. Me, I ignore most of this and use either white (that’s called granulated) or brown. I may lose some subtle tastes, but it works. However, I do not now and never have substituted baked beans for sugar in any recipe, nor do I recommend that you try.

In case that isn’t complicated enough, I’m going to give you several recipe links:

Behind door one is one of the rare recipes that doesn’t use self-raising flour. It also doesn’t use dates, which makes me suspicious, because dates seem to be important here.

Behind door two is one that uses both dates and self-raising flour. Don’t rule it out, though, because you can make your own self-raising flour from plain ol’ flour by adding “2 teaspoons of baking powder to each cup (150g) of all-purpose (plain flour).”

Since the recipe calls for 175 grams of flour and since my math is shaky at best, I’d have to double that, then toss the extra—what would it be? 100 grams? 125 grams? a bunch?—over my shoulder and onto the kitchen floor and blame Nigella for the mess since it’s her recipe and her substitution suggestion. Or her team’s. She may no longer exist in person but have been replaced by a team of some sort.

The recipe calls for muscovado sugar. See above. Or see the web site that says, “Sugars like muscovado, demerara, and turbinado have flavor depths and aromatic heights that blow plain ol’ granulated sugar out of the water.” Muscovado has a “very moist texture and a strong molasses flavor.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Me, I wouldn’t put my granulated sugar in the water to start with, so muscovado would have to blow if out of the cupboard. You can get away with brown sugar. Or probably (gasp) white.

Behind door three lurks something scary: the possibility that we’re not looking for sticky toffee pudding at all but sticky toffee cake. But let’s be reckless and yank the thing open it anyway. I didn’t get where I am today by being cautious.

Remind me, would you? Where am I exactly?

Most of the recipes I found for this call for golden syrup, which as far as I know isn’t sold in the U.S. supermarkets, but one doesn’t. For reasons I can’t explain, it pops up behind a box that wants to divert you someplace else entirely, but if you work at it you can still read the recipe.

And then there’s this one that not only doesn’t use golden syrup, it’s measured in cups and baked in Fahrenheit, which makes me think it’s from the U.S.

Sorry, Dan. I’d make this simple if I could but it wouldn’t be half as much fun to write about.

*

For those of you who are following the pet saga at our house, the Big Guy seems to moved on. He went out on Thursday night and hasn’t come back. I’ve put a notice on the village Facebook page, so people are keeping an eye out for him, but as J. wrote, he seems to have a touch of the wanderer in him. It’s been rainy and cold, but he’s good at letting people know what he needs–that’s how he came to us–so I hope he’s found himself a new home.

Updates on tea and medical bureaucracy

I get some fantastic comments on this blog and a few of them just have to break out of the comment section. So I’m going to pick up on four of them, two about tea and two about medical bureaucracy.

Tea

If you’re American, you think I already wrote more about tea than is either intellectually or physically possible. But I live in Britain. Tea is the binding force that holds the nation together, and let me tell you it’s looking a little shaky lately, what with Scotland having held a referendum on whether to leave the union and, far more shockingly, so many kids these days getting their caffeine from energy drinks instead of a respectable source like tea. Not to mention the number of tea drinkers allowing themselves to be seduced by fancy coffee and if that isn’t enough the possibility that Scotland will hold another referendum in the (less than immediate) future.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: fall berries. I'm not even sure what they are.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Fall berries. I’m not sure what they are but I don’t recommend tasting them.

And I’m not sure how the Welsh feel about referendums and secession. Or even whether some purist is going to tell me that the plural is referenda.

So, yeah. We need our tea. And we need to make it right. Which brings me to the point—and yes, there is one. Or two actually. You only had to wait.

J. tells me (and this was in person, not in a blog comment, which is why she’s going by an initial; the tradition may be silly but at least I’m consistent) that I ignored the role of teapots in my last tea post. Sure, I mentioned them, but you can’t make a nice cup of tea, J. says, unless you make it in a pot. Actually, she probably said “a proper cup of tea,” but I was listening to the sense, not the words, sadly. The sense was this: Make it in a cup and it just doesn’t come out right. Even if you only make a single cup, you need to make it in the pot and then pour it into the cup.

Why? Because it’s not a proper cup of tea otherwise, and if it’s not a proper cup of tea it’s not a nice cup of tea. And if it’s not a nice cup of tea, Scotland might just spin out into the North Sea, leaving the northern edge of England a ragged tear (pronounced tare; people may or may not weep about this, but it’s not what we’re talking about) across the land.

That’s not intended, by the way, as a comment on whether Scottish independence is a good idea. I could argue both sides of the proposition with equal passion. But the spinning into the North Sea? That’s just, you know, a fact.

Oh, and the pot has to be warm. Because the tea will brew better.

J.’s of the bone china school of tea drinking. Because it tastes better that way. It doesn’t have to be a fussy little cup and saucer—a mug’s fine—but for her it has to be made of china. Me? I like a heavier mug, but I try not to argue religion with friends.

So that’s one point. And then in the comment section, helenwood wrote about a job she had long ago, working for a tea importer, pouring water over the leaves so the tasters could sip and spit. But that wasn’t what grossed her out—it was that the tea leaves scattered on the warehouse floor, and presumably walked through by one and all, ended up in teabags.

If anything’s going to convert me to leaf tea, that would do it.

Medical bureaucracies

Moving on, then, from a serious topic to the trivia of our lives, we come to what I wrote about medicine in the U.K.

Ianbcross, a doctor who’s worked in the National Health System, commented that the Choose and Book system gives patients a code so they can make an appointment with a specialist online or by phone. “If there are no appointments available,” he writes, “it is up to the hospital to find one for you. You decide whether to accept it or not. This is for routine stuff. If your doc thinks you might have cancer, you get a two week wait appointment from the hospital. Less choice for you, but as soon as they can, they fit you in. Emergencies go directly to hospital, without passing GO, of course.”

Well, this is a guy who knows the system, and his comment made me wonder if I’d misremembered my experiences and Wild Thing’s. So I did what any sane blogger would do: I took a small and unscientific survey (I’ve stolen that phrase; it’s nice, isn’t it?) and came up with the following revelation: Our local surgery (that’s a doctor’s office if you’re American) is all set up so you can use the Click and Book system, but they don’t tell you about it. If you ask to use it, they’re happy to let you use it. But if you don’t already know about it, you can’t ask. So you sit around waiting for that letter.

Unless—as happened to me recently—you get a phone call. From the wrong hospital. But never mind, it was a phone call and it came quickly.

When I acted as an advocate for our neighbor, it wasn’t about getting an appointment but about shaking loose the report from an appointment she’d already had so she could (a) find out what was wrong and (b) do something about it. The doctor had dictated the letter and there it sat, waiting to be typed. And as far as I could tell there it was going to sit and wait until pine trees grew in hell.

The practice manager and I had a leave-it-with-me conversation, and I left it with her until the end of the day, when I called back. Which reminds me to mention that the NHS has a wonderful service called PALS, which stands for Patient Advocacy SomethingWithAnL SomethingWithAnS, not (as it did when I was a kid in New York) the Police Athletic League. I called PALS just after I talked with the practice manager. I suspect it’s owed the credit for getting that letter in the mail. I heard a rumor the service’s funding is going to be cut. I hope it’s not true, because the idea that within an inevitably bureaucratic system are people whose job is to make a nuisance of themselves when things aren’t working for the patient? That’s inspired.

In another comment, Dan Antion reminded me that in the U.S. the first questions anyone medical asks are about your coverage. If you’re not American, you may need that translated: Do you have insurance? Who’s your provider? What plan are you on (secondary translation: does your insurance plan cover this procedure)? And so on. In other words, everyone talks money while you bleed onto the floor, because money is what matters. (Note to the current U.K. government: Are you sure you don’t want to rethink that whole privatization of the NHS thing?)

And if anyone in Britain thinks it’s just the NHS that has unacceptable delays, he tells the story of a friend with a life-threatening condition who needed surgery and was told she couldn’t be seen for six to eight weeks.

The thing about the NHS is that until the current round of disorganizations were introduced, it’s been a unified system, so people talk about unacceptable delays, and newspapers write about them, and word generally gets passed around and everyone’s outraged and wants something done about it, which creates pressure to actually do something. When emergency rooms keep people waiting for more than four hours, it’s considered unacceptable. In the U.S., my father was left waiting in the emergency room for, if I remember right, seventeen hours. With meningitis. At the age of ninety. And he had good insurance. We were furious, but it was business as usual and didn’t tarnish the hospital’s reputation, or the U.S. medical system’s.

Making a nice cup of tea

When my British friends seriously want some tea, they get specific about what they want: not just tea but a nice cup of tea.

Let’s take that apart: We can leave a and of alone without destabilizing anything important. But think about the word nice. Because you don’t just have a cup of tea in this country, you have a nice cup of tea. Even when the nice is silent, if you listen carefully you can hear it resonating in the background. I need a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a nice cup of tea.

And if the cup of tea you get tastes like second-hand dishwater? It’s all the more disappointing, because what you wanted was that nice cup of tea, not this travesty you’ve been handed.

In the U.S., we never sit down to a nice cup of coffee. We drink coffee, we make coffee, we drop by our friends’ houses for coffee, and we go out for coffee. But we don’t expect that comforting nice from it. It’s just, you know, an ultra-fat mocha semiccino with whipped cream and caramel sauce with a side of chocolate chip muffin and a triple bacon cheeseburger deluxe on a sesame seed bun. With mayo.

In other words, it’s no big deal.

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

Irrelevant photo: wild blackberries

I don’t know what it says about our two cultures that one seeks comfort from a hot drink and the other doesn’t, but I’ve known people here in Britain to welcome a cup of tea the way I’d expect someone to welcome a stiff drink after a day when the computer blew up, the basement flooded, and the dog filed for divorce; I’ve known them to take the first sip and say, like a borderline alcoholic after a brief flirtation with sobriety, “I needed that.”

Or maybe that’s me I’m quoting. If so, forget it. I’m not British. Or I am, but not deeply enough to count.

So let’s move on. People who expect comfort from a hot drink seem to find it. Point made, in a wobbly fashion.

After nice comes cup. Go into any cafe any you can ask for a pot of tea, and in some for a mug. In most places you’ll get a pot whether you ask for it or not, and all of that is fine, but if the nice gets spoken at all, it comes attached to a cup—one of those curved shells you wrap your hands around while the warmth seeps into your half-frozen soul. The thing you bring to your lips, allowing all the love that went into its making to flow into your metaphorical as opposed to your literal heart. It may have been made in a pot, but whoever made it poured it into a cup for you and that’s what we’re talking about— that cup and its the contents, and by extension the acts of making and handing.

We’ve gone well beyond the rational here. This is about caring and nurturing. It’s about love itself, in an indirect way.

So tea is central to the culture. Does that mean an American can’t march in and make a decent cup? Americans seem to hold one of three opinions:

  1. [Fill in the blank] criticizes my tea-making and always will because I’m American. Even if I do it right, I’ll never do it right.
  2. I’ve been to Britain and read every book ever published on the subject. Tea is my religion and I’ve returned home to convert a refined few among the heathens.
  3. Oh, get over it. It’s just a drink. Wanna cup?

If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you can guess which category I’m in.

I don’t know how many categories British opinion falls into on the subject, and that may be for the best. However, in my unbiased opinion, I make a decent cup of tea, and if a friend’s in serious need I can even make a nice cup of tea. It’s hot, it’s strong (except when I make it for M., who drinks it so weak that I just boil the water and wave a teabag through the steam), and under normal circumstances it comes with something home baked.

And with that we arrive to the heart of this post. How do you make a nice cup of tea?

Am I qualified to answer that question? Do I care? Uncertainty hasn’t stopped me in the past, and neither has good sense. I don’t see why they should now. I predict, though, that from here on everyone who drinks tea will disagree with me about something. Have a good time, folks. I’m looking forward to it.

You start with the tea. If you’re American, this is the hard part.

Leaf tea: You can go to a fancy tea store and buy leaf tea, choosing one that was picked before sunrise from plants that have never been spoken to harshly. And you can pay any amount of money you like for the privilege, as long the amount is large. If you live in a tea-drinking country, on the other hand, you can buy leaf tea in a supermarket. No one in sight will know how the plants were spoken to or when the tea was picked. But it’s tea.

Wherever you buy it, try a few kinds and see which one you like.

Which means you have to brew it, and the first trick is to avoid stuffing it into anything that won’t let the water flow through. I’ve tried a variety of brewing gizmos over the years and most of them are as useless as stuffing the leaves in an old sock, and that includes the cloth or paper gizmos that imitate teabags. Why you want to avoid teabags and then use something that imitates them I don’t know, especially when they don’t work as well as the teabags you’re avoiding. (I am going to catch such hell for saying that. I can hardly wait.) Choose the wrong gizmo to stuff your leaves into and you’ll end up with expensive tannish water.

Open baskets do work—in this barbarian’s opinion.

In Britain, a lot of the cafes that use leaf tea dump it directly into the pot and give you a strainer, which comes with something to rest it on so you don’t end up splattering teadrops everywhere. Because the leaves are swimming around in the water, you don’t have to worry about whether the water’s flowing through them. The tea will be good and strong, but if you’re slow about drinking it, it’ll turn bitter. Some cafes give you an extra pot with hot water to thin it out with once that happens, but even with the extra water it sometimes gets strong enough to make you grow hair on your tongue.

Teabags: British supermarkets sell more kinds of teabags than they do baked beans, which is another way of saying you have a lot to pick from. If you’re in the U.S., your choices are limited. You can buy Twinings or something along those lines—one of those brands that entombs each teabag in a little plasticky-foily packet so you’ll understand how special it is, and how special you are to have bought it. I hate Twinings. Which—according to Kate Fox’s Watching the English—is because I’m not upper class. The lower classes drink their tea strong. The upper classes wants theirs to be as refined as they (think they) are, so their tea has to be pale and (lack-of-objectivity alert here) flavorless. So if you’re American and you like Twinings, go ahead and drink it and know that you’ve got more class than I have. Or want, thanks.

When I lived in the U.S., I bought Lyons tea from an Irish store near us and it was strong enough to turn my hair gray. Just look at the photo I use. Back when I drank coffee, I had (mostly) black hair. But Lyons is great stuff. If I hadn’t been able to get that, I think I’d have gone for Lipton’s rather than Twinings. At least it has some oomph to it.

Do I use leaf or teabags? Teabags. I used to keep some leaf tea for special occasions but the tea I made with it was never as good and how’s that a way to celebrate?

Water: This is the other ingredient in tea. If you want, you can use bottled water and it may or may not make your tea taste better. It will be more expensive. Your choice. You can use a kettle or a pan to boil it. If you’re in Britain, you’ll almost surely use an electric kettle because it’s fast. You’ll use it so often that you never put it away. If you’re in the U.S. you can still use an electric kettle but only if you’re willing to invest some time in the project. I grew old waiting for electric kettles to boil in the U.S. I’d have been 56 if I’d just put the water on the stove, but no, I had to buy an electric kettle and so I’m 68.

I have no idea why American electric kettles take so long.

What you can’t do is stick the water in the microwave. Even if it’s in a nice cup. Because microwaves don’t get the water not enough. The true secret of a nice cup of tea is that the water has to be boiling when you pour it over the tea. Or, okay, if it stopped boiling 30 seconds before I get to it, I don’t quibble, I just pour. But if it didn’t boil, or if it boiled back when my hair was black, it’s not worth using.

Do you have to warm the kettle? In my book, it depends on how cold the kettle is. Which depends on how cold the house is. If it’s cold, pour a little of the water in it, slosh it around, let it sit if you want to, warm the thing up, then pour the water out and make your tea. And if you’re making a single cup? I’ve never stopped to warm a cup, although it makes as much sense as warming the kettle. And the tea’s been fine, thanks.

I’ve read that you shouldn’t reboil the water because all the air goes out of it, or all the—oh, I don’t know why you’re not supposed to do it. You’re not. All the experts agree. So put in as much as you need and no more.

How long do you brew it? Well, how strong do you like your tea? I remember a huge ad in Paddington Station saying that after five minutes tea was stewed, not brewed. Stewed tea is bad. Why? Because a huge poster in Paddington Station said so.

I don’t leave my tea that long unless I wander off to do something else and forget it, in which case it may be as much as ten minutes before I wander back. If I’m in a hurry, I stir it. What you (and you’ll notice how seamlessly we’ve switched from me to you here) don’t want to do, if you’re using teabags, is squeeze them. It makes the tea bitter. Really. It does. Just lift them out, all dripping and nasty. Or leave them in, but if the tea’s going to be sitting a while, you may end up with a hairy tongue.

Add milk. Or milk and sugar if you feel strongly about it. Then sit back and enjoy a nice cup of tea. With love.

The fluid ounce and the British passport

A friend in the U.S., L., recently sent me an American measuring cup. I’d asked for it because early in my blogging career I read on an expat blog that the British pint contains one more fluid ounce than the American pint. I tucked that information away in the back of my screaming brain to ponder at some time in the future when I suddenly become competent with numbers.

That’s another way of saying, I ignored the information. Even when I’m working with imperial measures, I don’t measure things by the pint, I measure them by the cup or the fluid ounce. But it nagged at me. What, I couldn’t help wondering at 3 a.m. when my brain was fizzing and the kitten had noticed I was awake and decided to see if he couldn’t sleep inside my nostril, if the ounce itself is different?

Nah, I told myself once morning came, my brain settled down, and the kitten had wandered off to play with the dog. They couldn’t do that to me. I’m a citizen.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

I had good evidence for this. Not only a British passport, which they don’t hand out to non-citizens, but the fact that my American recipes work, even though I made every last one of them using British measuring cups.

Except cornbread. That doesn’t work. I’ve tried two or three recipes since I moved here, using cornmeal I brought from the U.S., and none of the results were worth eating. But okay, cornbread’s an American dish and doesn’t cross borders. I accepted that. Everything else was fine.

Except, irrelevantly, tomato sauce, but I don’t measure that, I just kind of combine it. Besides, it’s edible, just not the same as I made in the U.S. The canned tomatoes are British. Even the ones that claim to be Italian. That’s the only way I can account for it.

But back to ounces. I’ve been blogging since—oh, since whenever I started. A year ago? More a year ago? Have I explained that I don’t do numbers? Counting to one is beyond me. So it’s been something vaguely related to a year. Although the British year may be longer than the American one, so what does any of this mean, really, in the great scheme of things? The minute itself may be longer. I’m not about to split hairs.

However long it’s been, that’s how long it’s taken me to think, Y’know, maybe I should check on this fluid ounce thing. And so I asked if L. would send me an American measuring cup, and when she did I poured some water back and forth from hers to a British one and it didn’t come to the same marks.

I poured the water out, put both measuring cups in the drying rack, and refused to believe what, between them, they were telling me. I repeat: I’m a citizen. They can’t do this to me.

I tried again a couple of days later and got the same result, and I responded the same way, except that this time I thought, Maybe if I tried it with milk it would be different. Because milk’s white. It’s easier to read. It would give me the answer I wanted.

Finally I emailed L., explaining some of this (I hadn’t thanked her yet, so it was high time), although I made an effort to sound marginally saner than I do here, and she sent me a link. It turns out the British fluid ounce is 0.9607599ths of a U.S. fluid ounce. That just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s exactly the kind of number the average home cook can work with.

This information, I decided, must explain the difference between the number of ounces in the British and U.S. pints—someone added the extra ounce so the pints come out even—and off I trotted to Google to confirm my insight.

Nope. The British pint equals 570 ml and the U.S. one equals 470.

Can you hear me screaming? One of the things I’m screaming is that you have to translate this mess into metric in order to compare it. Without the metric system, we couldn’t even discuss it, because in imperial measures it falls off the edge of the English language. We’d be reduced to pouring water on the floor and comparing the size of the spills.

So thank you for the measuring cup, L. I appreciate it and as soon as the medications and the meditation restore my equilibrium I’m going to make another batch of cornbread. My cornmeal’s only eight years old. It should be fine. And if not, what the hell, I got a blog post out of it.

And since we’re not discussing this, I should ask if you’ve noticed that expat is nothing but a fancy word for immigrant. 

The cream tea wars

Cornwall and Devon are separated by the River Tamar and by a whole lot of bitter claims over who makes the best cream tea. Since a few people have left comments lately saying—and I’m about to paraphrase them both inaccurately and irresponsibly—that almost no wars are worth fighting, I think it’s time we stop and contemplate whether this one might not be. Because some things really do matter.

But first, for the sake of those of you whose feet have never been tucked under a table blessed with a cream tea, I need to explain what I’m going on about. The cream tea one of the few things that might convince this atheist that heaven exists. You take a scone and split it in half, then put jam and clotted cream on each half and as you take that first bite you’ll notice your eyes rolling upward toward the heavens in thanks.

swanage 073

Irrelevant photo: To be fair to both Cornwall and Devon, I’m posting a photo from Dorset. Which probably also thinks it invented the cream tea.

What’s clotted cream, though? It’s roughly as thick as whipped cream (don’t quibble; I did say “roughly”) but unsweetened. As well as yellower, gooier, and better. Ignore the disgusting name.

What’s this got to do with wars? Well, in Devon they think they invented both clotted cream and the cream tea. And they put the cream on first. In Cornwall, they also think they invented clotted cream and the cream tea and they put the jam on first. You at the back, settle down. This will be on the test.

In fact, it’s on the test every time I get a cream tea—which isn’t often because the arteries will only put up with just so much abuse. But it does happen now and then and when it does I sit in front of the scones, the dishes of cream and jam, and can’t remember which goes on first. Because I live in Cornwall, and this is serious stuff. It’s also exactly the kind of stuff my mind spits out like a toddler offered rutabaga. Ptooey, it says. I’m not remembering this, and it dances off to review some song lyric it already knows perfectly well, or the name of a wildflower, or something else of its own damn choosing.

Meanwhile, I could get myself run out of the county for this. And if I do, my mind’s going with me so I wish it would pay more attention.

Why does anyone care? Once upon a time, I’d have said it was just something to fight over, but food scientists have researched the issue, looking for the perfect cream tea formula. It turns out you want 40 grams of scone, 30 of cream, and 30 of jam. And—although they don’t mention this—a good-size pot of tea. With milk, a sunny day, and some people you like. Because hurling yourself at a cream tea on your own is right up there with drinking alone.

It turns out that the Devon method makes it easier to spread the fillings but the Cornish method allows you to serve the scone hotter, because the jam insulates the cream and keeps it from running. They don’t actually say which is better, the cowards. Which means they’ve been overtaken by the fate of most peacemakers, which is to piss off both sides.

You will, of course, pledge your allegiance to whichever side you choose, but don’t be surprised to make a few enemies when you do.

If you don’t live in Britain but want to make your own cream tea so you can participate in our wars? You’ll find a scone recipe in a back post and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding strawberry jam in a store, but you’ll have to either find a fancy supermarket and pay an outrageous amount of money for real clotted cream or try to fake it. Here are a couple of attempts I found online. I can’t vouch for either of them. This one’s from Food.com and used heavy cream and sour cream. And this one’s from Just a Pinch and uses cream cheese and whipping cream. Both add a bit of sugar, which makes me skeptical, but it may work. For the real thing, you’ll have to visit. On a sunny day. With friends.

Dealing with the public, U.K. style: part 2

Last Friday I posted a piece about what it’s like dealing with the public in the U.K. Then I did the grocery shopping and became the public.

I need to bore you with a bit of personal background here. On Thursday, I made pizza for Wild Thing, a friend, and myself. Two pizzas to be exact, because our friend is young, with youth’s boundless and enthusiastic ability to eat a lot of whatever’s available. I make a decent pizza, if I do say so myself, with homemade dough but, sadly, bottled sauce. I used homemade sauce once, and although it’s good on spaghetti it was all wrong on pizza. So I use bottled stuff.

But pizza calls for mozzarella.

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Irrelevant photo: beach huts at Swannage

Now unlike the U.S., Britain never attracted a serious wave of Italian immigrants, and it’s a poorer country for it—something that’s worth keeping in mind as we battle it out over how many refugees we’ll allow to reach these green shores. So Cornwall shouldn’t be your first stop if you’re planning a mozzarella tour of the world. When you ask for mozzarella here, most stores will show you little wet balls of the stuff, called fresh mozzarella, sealed in soft plastic coffins.

Do I sound biased? I’ve never tasted truly fresh mozzarella, but I’ve read that it has 24 wonderful qualities and one is lost in each hour after it’s made. The stuff in plastic coffins, then? It’s edible, even if I can’t get excited about it. But it’s Italian, and we’re all impressed with Italian food, so it sells. As the British recover from a traumatic food history, which includes not just rationing during and after World War II but long exposure to baked beans and overboiled cabbage, they’re exercising their gourmet muscles, trying to build up—well, maybe not a reputation as a gourmet nation but a something, a, um, gee, I seem to have gone all flappy and wordless as I try to describe this.

Okay, here’s what I’m trying to say: I opened Saturday’s paper and turned to the recipes while I worked up the courage to face the latest brutalities of the refugee crisis. Because—I know, in the context it’s grotesque, but our world a grotesque place these days—I love reading recipes, and trying a few of them. And the ones I found called for orange blossom honey, fresh curry leaves, and quails’ eggs. And good sherry vinegar. If you have any of the crappy stuff, don’t use it. Not to mention fennel bulbs. (Bleah—licorice flavor. Shudder, shudder, shudder.)

Not all in one recipe, to be fair about this. But still, you know, it’s not the stuff every home cook keeps on hand. Or the stuff rural supermarkets stock.

I can’t help thinking that these things get tossed into British recipes to establish the gourmetocity of the cooks who write them. You know: Look at us. Aren’t we worldly? Don’t we know our ingredients? So what if you never cook it: Aren’t you impressed?

I’ve wandered. Where was I? Fresh mozzarella in little wet packs that preserve it for so long that calling it fresh violates every Truth in Advertising standard ever established. It’s trendy. So the supermarkets sell it. Hell, even our village store’s been known to stock it. And it’s useless for pizza. Once, in desperation, I tried squeezing the water out of it and using it. I might as well have boiled the pizza.

I do not recommend repeating the experiment.

Plain ol’ mozzarella—the nonfresh stuff; I guess you could call it the dry stuff—is hard to find where I live. Maybe in cities it’s easier. For a while our local supermarket, Morrison’s, sold it by the block, which was great. Then they didn’t sell any. Then they sold it grated. Then that disappeared and was replaced with a mozzarella and cheddar mix, which is blasphemy. Then, finally, they sold a Morrison’s brand grated mozzarella again. And all was at peace in North Cornwall.

Until of course it wasn’t. Because the stuff I bought and used on our most recent pizzas? It was white and it melted—so far so much like mozzarella—but it didn’t taste like cheese. The packaging was the same as the mozzarella I’d bought before, but they’re substituted some uncheeselike substance.

And this in a country that takes cheese seriously. That makes and eats wonderful cheese.

And now we return to Friday, when I was shopping in Morrison’s, having made two bad pizzas the day before, and I was in the dairy aisle, where a kid was stocking something and on an impulse I asked him, “If I made a comment on one of your products, is there anyone who actually listens to that sort of thing?”

To which he said something along the lines of, “Gee, I don’t know.”

We both laughed. There was no point in going on about the mozzarella, but there was also no way not to, so I told him about it. We stopped to unscramble that I didn’t mean the fresh stuff, I meant the grated (since they no longer sell it in bricks).

“I only buy the red Leicester,” he said, “and to be honest that’s crap too.”

How could I not like this kid? I seem to remember Wild Thing swearing off red Leicester years ago, for just that reason, although on the basis of our recent experience I’m ready to guess that we don’t know what red Leicester really tastes like. I don’t remember what else we said, but as we were winding down I said, “Well, if there’s anyone to pass my comment on to, tell them some crazy American who lives here complained about the mozzarella.”

He said he would. We were both, I think, pretty sure he wouldn’t, because who was he going to tell? I thought about calling the emergency services number—which is 999 here, in case you need to know that—but I restrained myself.